If I knew then what I know now ... I wouldn't wait to start my own shop

By Published on .

If I could step into a DeLorean doubling as a time machine and talk to my younger entrepreneurial self, I'd set the flux capacitor to summer 2003 -- exactly five years before I opened the doors to Zulu Alpha Kilo.

The heart-to-heart between the older and younger me would go something like this. "You've been thinking about starting your own shop for a long time," the wiser me would say. "You're going to keep feeling that entrepreneurial itch for years, so why not scratch it now? Quit your job. Remortgage your home. Don't waste another day."

Maybe if I had heard that then, I wouldn't have waited until I was 41 years old to start Zulu. But as we celebrate our 10th year in business, I know now the hardest part of my entrepreneurial journey was simply making that critical decision to quit and take the leap. After I did, a colleague gave me a goodbye card that read, "Leap and the net will appear." I had no idea how much truth and insight there was behind that line until I started my agency. Now that I had made the decision to start an agency, I still had no idea how I'd go about doing it. The universe does have a funny way of compelling you to figure out the rest along the way.

If I could, I would go back in time just to relive the happiness on the face of my younger self as I pushed a shopping cart through Staples and filled it up with markers, pens, notepads and art pads.

At the checkout counter, I'd tell myself to take another leap and buy a building one day. You're going to pay ridiculous amounts of money in rent, so why not own your space 10 years later? In 2009, we did make an offer on a building, but the landlord ended up taking it off the market. It is now worth four times what they were asking.

In the early days, we had a few people that didn't fit in culturally but I was afraid the agency would fall apart if they left. Once they did leave, the agency flourished. "Deal with them now," I would tell myself.

On the other hand, I would advise myself to hire the best talent that does fit right away. Even if it costs more and we barely break even, I'd know the agency will be better off with the right leaders in place from the outset.

Thankfully, some things I did get right: Investing in technology and finance from day one. As a creative guy, I was petrified of having to deal with dockets and invoices. I was fortunate to find exceptional finance people right out of the gate who were critical in setting up the agency operationally.

"Delegate more," I'd finally advise the younger me. As an entrepreneur, there is that tendency to want to do it all. It wasn't until I started to focus and trust others more that the agency became more successful.

If you're reading this and are thinking of scratching your entrepreneurial itch, don't listen to the boss who tells you that you'll never succeed on your own. Or friends who say that you're too old. Or older colleagues who say that you're too young.

Borrow the DeLorean and travel to your future self. Sure, the industry may not need another holding-company owned ad agency. But I suspect there will still be plenty of room in the future for creatively driven, scrappy start-ups.

Ad Age's Small Agency conference will be held July 17-18 in Marina del Rey, California. Sign up here.

Most Popular
In this article: